A Karch Kiraly comparison?
Darrick Lucero, who coached him as a young club player, has no doubt about where TJ DeFalco stands in the men’s volleyball world.
“He’s the best volleyball player since Karch Kiraly in our country,” Lucero declared. “And I have a feeling that if he stays on track he’ll be the No. 1 player in the world.”
Right now, DeFalco’s part of a dynamic Long Beach State offense. The 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter was the 2017 AVCA national player of the year and a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American. This season, top-ranked Long Beach is 9-0 and ranked No. 1 heading into its next match, when Concordia visits the Pyramid on Friday.
To be frank, DeFalco doesn’t care who you or his coaches compare him to or how they imagine his future to be. His expectations far exceed all of those, and anyway, these are nothing new.
It was in 2009 when they began in earnest. DeFalco had just moved from Missouri to Southern California. He had played a year with Wave Volleyball Club, in Del Mar, but the father of DeFalco’s beach partner, Josh Tuaniga, couldn’t bear to see this kid with a whip of an arm and a God-given knack for the game of volleyball play for a different club.
He contacted Lucero, the director for the HBC Volleyball Club, where Josh was a setter, and told him about DeFalco. And when Lucero saw TJ hit a ball at an unofficial mid-season tryout in 2009 he couldn’t pull out his phone fast enough, so important it was to call club co-founder Tyler Hildebrand, and callhimrightnow.
As Hildebrand, now an assistant women’s coach at Nebraska, remembers it, it was 10, maybe 11 o’clock at night. He was setting for the national team at the time and doubling as a coach for HBC. He wasn’t in much of a mood to drive back to Golden West College to watch a kid hit a few balls.
But this isn’t any kid, Lucero argued.
“No way,” Hildebrand said, to which Lucero replied, “It’s a once in a lifetime friendship ask. I’m telling you, this kid is the greatest talent. He’s going to be something great.”
Hildebrand sighed, relented, turned his car around and marveled as DeFalco ripped balls as his sister, Talia, set.
“His reaction was priceless,” DeFalco said. “I’ll never forget it.”
His reaction was precisely what Lucero had told him it would be: Awestruck, excited at the tantalizing potential that had just walked into the gym.
“No one has ever seen a 13-year-old hit a ball like this,” Hildebrand said. “It was unbelievable. That’s where it started.”
Thing is, Hildebrand didn’t even realize that DeFalco had only been playing organized volleyball for a year.
No, the kid was much better at golf. Or milking cows and goats. That’s what he did in Missouri. The DeFalcos, all seven of them –- Tia, Tony, Talia, TJ, Teagan, Tanner, Talia -– and nine if you include the parents, Torey and Gina, would wake up at 6 a.m., milk the cows and goats, do whatever other chores were required of them on the farm, and then, as TJ remembers it, “We’d have an adventure.”
He’d chop down trees and make up games.
“It was good to have an imagination,” he said.
They were an anachronism, the DeFalcos. On their farm they had green beans, rice, wheats, “everything,” TJ said. They’d make their own butter, had the cows and goats for milk, pigs and emus for steaks and protein.
Only one, maybe two, trips to the grocery store were needed each month, just for, as TJ says, “miscellaneous items.” Everything else was raised on the farm.
For school, his parents, would run to Sam’s Club or Walmart and pick up homeschool textbooks for their children respective to their approximate grade, and after the chores around the house were finished and the adventures were conquered, the kids would work through their textbooks.
A few days a week, Torey would take TJ to the local golf course, and before TJ was a teenager he was shooting 5-over-par. He had visions of becoming the next Tiger Woods.
Who was that?
The only volleyball TJ played was at a YMCA or local restaurant that had a sand court on the side, and even then, it was 9-on-9 and “we’d just slap the ball back and forth,” TJ said.
When TJ was 12, or maybe 13, he can’t remember exactly, his father capitalized on a booming fiber-optics industry, moving the DeFalco clan near Temecula. He started a fiber-optics business that struck deals with Verizon, Sprint, all the major phone companies, installing internet and phone lines. And while Torey found success in the business world, his children had found a muse of their own: Volleyball.
They’re a tightly knit crew, these DeFalcos. You’d never see just one DeFalco, but nearly half a dozen. When one played for a certain club, they all played for that club.
So Hildebrand had known the DeFalco name when Lucero called him that night in 2009. He had coached Talia and had seen TJ around. There he’d be, smashing balls against the wall, passing against the wall, setting against the wall, watching. Always watching.
TJ’s a visual learner. Many kids might have thought it a waste of time to watch their sisters practice volleyball for four hours a day, but TJ was soaking in every detail, listening to the coaches explain a platform, a swing, and then he’d go practice it on his own, tailoring it to what felt comfortable to him.
Technically, he hadn’t received a great deal of coaching by the time Hildebrand saw him, though in reality TJ had been coached roughly six hours per day, simply observing and listening to his sisters’ practices.
All of that culminated into TJ ripping balls in such a manner that Hildebrand knew, immediately, that TJ had “a one in a 20-year type arm.”
And the mountain of expectations for TJ DeFalco had officially begun.
DeFalco won’t elaborate on what his expectations for himself are, only that, right now, he’s not living up to them. This season, he’s not hitting the way he wants, not serving the way he wants. For that matter, he’s second to Long Beach teammate Kyle Ensing in kills this young season and hitting .369.
“There’s no excuse,” he said, not the knee that’s been nagging him or the shoulder that has been subjected to an inordinate amount of stress in the past nine or so years or the double- and triple-blocks that are invariably sent his way.
There’s no excuse because he has never, at any point, let any of his teammates succumb to excuse-making. If there is a flaw in DeFalco’s game, it has nothing to do with his game at all, rather his lofty demands –- not expectations, but demands –- of his teammates. Well, maybe not the demands themselves, but the presentation of them.
When DeFalco was 14, Lucero coached him at HBC, and he estimates that it is likely the best 14s team not just of that season, but ever, to the point that, in their very first match at Junior Olympics, birth certificates were demanded of every single player, so unbelievable it was that all those kids were only 14. DeFalco didn’t care if they were undefeated or if they were so good to be unbelievable: He wanted more from them.
“There was never ‘We’re No. 1, let’s go easy in practice,’” DeFalco said. “It was always ‘Let’s go harder because I don’t want someone to be better than us. Ever.’ That was always my thought process. I don’t want there to be a thought in someone’s mind that they could beat us.”
When his teammates weren’t playing to the level he knew they could, his shoulders would slump. He’d curse, snarl, grimace. He’d need more out of them, because, he’d think to himself, “I just want you to be the best you possibly can and I’ve seen you in that mental zone and you’re amazing and I know you have more.”
“That’s where it was coming from and it was almost never presented that way,” DeFalco said. “I’m still working on presenting that message that ‘I love you guys to death, but I’ve seen you do more, I need more out of you guys.’ ”
Inevitably, this earned him a polarizing reputation, though while parents both of his own team and the opposition could be turned off by it, his coaches understood, which is where the comparisons to the great ones began.
Michael Jordan was so demanding of his Chicago Bulls teammates that Steve Kerr, a teammate, famously took a swing at him. Dozens of Los Angeles Lakers teammates requested trades to escape the ire of Bryant. It was not uncommon for Mia Hamm, the U.S. soccer great, to send her North Carolina teammates bawling home from practice.
“I know he gets a bad rap for being emotional and being maybe self-centered but that typically comes with the guys who are the greatest,” Lucero said. “He’s a rock star, let’s get that straight.”
So much so that, as a senior at Huntington Beach High School, he got the call from USA national-team coach John Speraw. He wanted DeFalco in the gym.
Not even Karch got that call in high school.
One day. That was all he allowed for what he calls “fan girling.” For there, right next to him, was Reid Priddy – Reid Priddy! A four-time Olympian! The man whom DeFalco watched more film on than anyone, who, at 6-foot-4 like him, isn’t exceptionally tall for an outside, relying on a quicksilver arm swing and an even faster brain to put balls away against blockers five, six, seven inches taller.
He looked at Priddy and examined himself for a moment. Sure, he had a phenomenal high school record at Huntington Beach High, one that would finish with three straight state championships, 104 consecutive wins and just two total losses, both in preseason of his sophomore year, but what weight did those hold to an Olympic gold medal?
“I was like ‘What am I doing here?’ ” he recalled.
And then, day two, he snapped out of it. He hadn’t been called into the gym to ogle at Priddy and Matt Anderson and Taylor Sander. He had been called to become a member of the team. So he’d ask questions on platforms, swinging, setting –- anything he could glean, he asked it. He was struck by their patience and willingness to help –- patience he might not necessarily have had with his own teammates.
And slowly –- slowly –- TJ DeFalco began to change.
“Guys were talking around, saying ‘Man TJ’s not coming to practice,’ but we knew it was all for the better, and whatever he learned from that gym he’d bring into our gym and heighten the volleyball that we were playing, and that was the result of him being there, making us all better,” said Tuaniga, who has set DeFalco at HBC, Huntington and, now, Long Beach.
“Him being exposed to such a high level at such a young age contributed to that, just having that mentality that he brought, that there was more to the game. There’s so much more.”
There is more for DeFalco to accomplish, as a player and a teammate. He still estimates that “85 percent of the time it’s the wrong presentation of my message. So I’m working on that.”
By now his teammates get it. Even if his presentation is off, sometimes spectacularly so, DeFalco has at least taken the time to explain where it’s coming from, this manic drive for more.
“Sometimes we’ll go 10 points without saying a word to each other,” said Matt Hilling, who qualified with DeFalco for AVP San Francisco in 2016. “It doesn’t bother me. I just let him do his thing.”
On the 18s team at HBC, Hilling tried to explain to the rest of the team that it was nothing personal, that TJ simply wanted more. Some of them understood. Some didn’t.
Whether they appreciated it or not, “You know he’s right,” Hilling said. “And you know he’d make the play.”
DeFalco made so many plays that verged on the absurd on the beach that “I learned real fast blocking for him that I better turn and be ready because the ball is going to be up, he’ll get it up somehow,” Hilling said.
“It was a shock at first but now I’m not surprised at any play he’ll make. There’s just too many to count where I’m not even up and the dude is just hammering the ball and TJ turns and digs it like it’s nothing.”
He has made these plays at every level, from juniors to high school to college and even in his short time on the national team. On that first day, Matt Fuerbringer, an assistant on the national team at the time, remembers something different. He remembers seeing DeFalco overloaded on a block, and where most players might rush to get outside only to have their momentum carry them past the hitter, DeFalco remained calm. He read the hitter, adjusted, dropped his hands inside and made the block.
“I teach guys for years and they make the same move and they panic and they end up drifting outside on an inside set and he just saw that,” Fuerbringer said. “He just saw what was in front of him and got it.”
What’s in front of him now: His junior and senior seasons at Long Beach State (he recently said he’d back for his last year), a full-time workload with the national team, a potential roster spot on the 2020 Olympic team. Fuerbringer wouldn’t be surprised to see DeFalco compete in Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics. Neither would Hildebrand or Lucero or Hilling or anyone who has come across DeFalco on the volleyball court.
“Who woulda thought?” DeFalco asked, rhetorically, reflecting upon his journey from Missouri farmlands to USA national-team gyms. “Who would have calculated this?”